From Biosis 12, September 2006

Muscling Up Your Memory

Think back to when you were a kid, doing your homework after school. Maybe you had the TV on, or the radio or a record playing in the background while you worked your algebra problems or studied for the next day’s history exam. Those of us who did this always thought our parents killjoys for telling us to cut the distractions. We’d argue that the background noise helped us work better. Our parents shook their heads.

Kids today have even more distractions than we did. While doing their homework, they might be texting their friends or chatting with them online, surfing the web, listening to their iPod, playing computer games, watching TV…and on and on. It’s multitasking taken to the nth degree. In a way, it’s an entertainment-based version of the kind of multitasking many of us are often required to do at work.

As usual, though, our parents were right – no matter what kinds of tasks we’re juggling. The more demands on your attention, the less able you are to process the information. Memory gets disrupted. Declarative memory – the kind that lets you recall experiences – and procedural memory – the kind that lets you recall how to do things – come into conflict. Knowledge becomes less flexible. What you need to remember gets tied to the situation in which you learned it, making it much harder to recall under different circumstances.

While cutting distractions can go a long way toward improving your memory, just keeping your brain active can take you even further. Challenge yourself to learn something novel. If you work with computers, learn to paint or dance. If you’re a creative type, learn to play chess or repair a car. For challenges go far beyond mere mental stimulation. They actually stimulate the growth of your brain’s neural circuitry. (This is another reason why education is so important for youth, whose brains are still growing. The act of learning supports physical brain development.) Even less demanding mental activities can help, from working puzzles to doing mental exercises such as visualization.

Just as your brain needs regular exercise, so does your body, which also helps memory. Physical exertion increases blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain. In turn, this encourages continued cell growth, even in older folks. By the same token, it’s important to get enough sleep. It gives your brain the opportunity to process and store memories from throughout the day. In fact, a recent study confirmed that people who slept shortly after learning new information had much better recall than those who did not sleep before being asked to remember the info.

Good nutrition also has a role to play in improving memory. Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits provides you with the antioxidants that help protect and nourish brain cells. Similarly, the B vitamins play a key role in cognitive function, as well as mood regulation. This is why they’re so often used in energy and “smart” drinks. But water is a better choice for enhancing your brain’s ability to work well.

All together, diet, exercise and a stimulating environment have proven to give the best boost to cognitive function, whether acting on previously learned skills or learning new ones. And that’s definitely something worth remembering!


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